Knoxville News Sentinel: Collins: Support of nuclear energy bridges partisan divide

Posted on March 15, 2010

Congress may be bogged down when it comes to health-care reform and other issues, but the partisan divide appears to have narrowed on nuclear energy.

President Barack Obama announced recently that his administration is offering $8.33 billion in loan guarantees to build the first nuclear power plant in the country in nearly three decades - a not-unexpected decision that nevertheless elicited uncustomary praise from GOP lawmakers.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called it a welcome change from an energy policy "that was looking like a national windmill policy, the equivalent of going to war in sailboats."

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the loan guarantees are "most welcome" and that she hopes the decision "signals the administration is broadening its approach to energy policy."

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, called the announcement "a significant step forward in jump-starting what I hope will be a renaissance in nuclear energy."

Alexander also had strong words of praise for the president during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The senator congratulated the president for "the leadership" he has shown on nuclear energy, adding: "The president's view is terribly important here because the government isn't going to build these plants - the utilities are, and the ratepayers are going to pay for them. It's up to the president and Congress to create an environment in which that can happen."

On Obama's three nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Alexander said, "It would be difficult for the president to find three better nominees to the NRC."

The loan guarantees offered by Obama and the U.S. Department of Energy would help cover part of the financing for two new reactors at a power plant in Burke County, Ga. The plant is operated by Southern Co., the Atlanta-based owner of utilities in four states.

Federal help for more nuclear plants might be coming. Obama's budget for the coming year includes some $54.5 billion in loan guarantees for clean-energy projects, including nuclear power.

TVA is working to finish a second reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant near Spring City by 2012, and is contemplating whether to finish a reactor or build a new one at Bellefonte Nuclear Power Plant in Hollywood, Ala., later this decade.

TVA would not be eligible for the new loan guarantees, although as a government-sponsored entity TVA's debt is generally priced by the market as if it had such a guarantee.

Regardless, TVA spokesman Terry Johnson said, "We are supportive of anything that is supportive of the industry."

Obama's willingness to invest in nuclear power is causing him problems with environmentalists, who argue the guarantees are risky because the industry has a history of cost overruns and loan defaults.

"I thought it was somewhat of a desperate move by the administration to try to reach out and look bipartisan," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Smith speculated the $8.33 billion offered for the nuclear reactors in Georgia and the overall $54.5 billion in Obama's budget may be an effort to coax Republicans into supporting an energy and climate change bill that has stalled in the Senate.

"It does not make any sense for taxpayers' money to be put at risk to try to resurrect a mature industry like nuclear power," Smith said. "If it is such a good deal for ratepayers and taxpayers, then why isn't Wall Street stepping up and putting money into it? Because they know there is a great risk."